The Lost Weekend (1945) Director: Billy Wilder
“It’s a terrifying problem, Nat, because if it’s dawn, you’re dead. The bars are closed and the liquor stores don’t open until nine o’clock and you can’t last until nine o’clock. Or maybe Sunday, that’s the worst. No liquor stores at all, and you guys wouldn’t open a bar, not until one o’clock.”
Complete with a meticulously crafted script by Hollywood auteur Billy Wilder (drafted alongside his long-time collaborator Charles Brackett), and an all-around wonderful cast including Jane Wyman and Ray Milland (who I recently reviewed in Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder), The Lost Weekend was sure to be a great success. It was nominated for seven Oscars and won four: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay. In addition, Miklós Rózsa offers an ethereal score which makes use of a synthesizer as we see the crazed look in Milland’s eye when he spots alcohol. The Lost Weekend was Billy Wilder’s fourth directorial outing, following Major and the Minor (1942), Five Graves to Cairo (1943), and the classic film noir Double Indemnity (1944). In fact, there is a critical debate today regarding exactly how much of The Lost Weekend can truly be considered a proper film noir.
Ray Milland plays Don Birnam, a sloppy drunkard who simply cannot control his raging alcoholic urges. He claims to be a struggling writer, unable to complete his novel entitled “The Bottle.” In truth, he has not written anything in years and he suffers from a crippling fear of failure. The film opens with a captivating panorama of New York City until we suddenly spot a bottle of whiskey dangling by a string outside a window. Don has been hiding alcohol throughout the apartment. For some reason, his high-class girlfriend Helen St. James (Jane Wyman) still remains by his side, despite numerous instances of him falling off the wagon, including his most recent failed promise to spend a weekend away with his brother Wick (Phillip Terry). As told in a pair of hazy flashbacks, Don recalls how he first met Helen –do we trust him? A critical debate today persists regarding how much of this film can be considered a true noir. At any rate, some time prior Don attends an evening opera performance when his coat is accidentally mixed up with Helen’s. When they fix the situation, Don and Helen depart together in a flirtatious tryst until a bottle of whiskey slips out of Don’s coat pocket and smashes onto the floor. He quickly covers it up with a lie so she invites him to a cocktail party. However, she soon learns of the truth as Don stumbles into a string of lies involving his brother and he misses an introductory meeting with Helen’s parents. Don spends the weekend in a drunken stupor, hocking his valuables at pawn shops for a few extra dollars before being kicked out of a high-brow New York bar after stealing an older woman’s purse in order to pay his bar tab. He tumbles down a flight of stairs after taking money from a local prostitute who is infatuated with him, and winds up in a rehabilitation center only to escape and continue drinking. When he returns home, he experiences shrieking night terrors –he has a dark vision of a mouse and a bat– until Helen arrives to his rescue. She prevents him from committing suicide as the film ends on a hopeful note.
Billy Wilder’s films only continue to grow more impressive to me with each one I watch. I recently re-watched The Apartment (1960) as well and greatly revised my perspective on it. Mr. Wilder reminds writers that simply offering a good story is not enough. You have to know how to present the movie –sometimes out of sequence, with various twists and reveals, in hazy flashbacks or surrealist dreams. After all, the ending is what matters most (as Don reminds us throughout the film). Billy Wilder’s style deepens our heightened concern for this troubled alcoholic. Interestingly, lead actor Ray Milland thought he should try to experience the struggles of addiction first-hand, so he checked himself into a psychiatric ward where addiction was treated in an effort to better understand the life of an alcoholic. The experience was so disturbing that he left in the middle of the night, making for an eerie performance in the film. The film was actually based on a 1944 novel by Charles R. Jackson, who was apparently an alcoholic, although his original novel explores pressing themes of homosexuality, even if Hollywood in the ’40s simply could not handle both alcoholism and homosexuality in the same film.
As one of the first films to address the serious problem of alcoholism, The Lost Weekend leaves an indelible impression. Rather than portraying alcoholics as sloppy drunks or as silly, comedic figures (a la W.C. Fields), The Lost Weekend forces us to descend, again and again, into a series of frustratingly desperate bouts of addiction. The chief tension concerns our support for Don, on the one hand, and his bottomless drive to continue drinking. He believes the alcohol will inspire him to write, even though it actually prevents him from doing so –and a vicious cycle ensues. Unlike other Hollywood films which often celebrate excessive drinking as classy, fun, or edgy, The Lost Weekend exposes the truth about excessive drinking and addiction more broadly. Apparently, this film had a huge impact on returning World War II combat veterans who were struggling to re-assimilate to civilian life. In fact, it spawned a string of similar films addressing social ills, such as The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and The Snake Pit (1948).